My Debate About Chomsky on Adam Smith Re-Opens
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I received a comment on a post I made, 5 May 2009, in relation to something posted in the Alerts about Professor Chomsky’s views (see the Archives on the right-hand column to find the original post – go to 2009, and then trawl through ‘May’). Here is the one of three posts from me at that time about Chomsky’s views on Smith:
The Original post:
“Not Sure About Chomsky's Version of Adam Smith”
“Noam Chomsky: I didn't do any research at all on Smith. I just read him. There's no research. Just read it. He's pre-capitalist, a figure of the Enlightenment. What we would call capitalism he despised. People read snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school. Everybody reads the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations where he talks about how wonderful the division of labor is. But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits."
My initial Comment:
Let me say first that Noam Chomsky is respected as a formidable intellectual with a lot of ‘hinterland’ as we say in the UK, and he says quite a lot about Adam Smith that you won’t find from many modern economists, because, as he says, few of them actually read Smith’s books. But if you put up this line of argument it is best if you show that you have read Wealth Of Nations well.
That he confesses he ‘read him’ but didn’t do ‘research’ is revealing and perhaps explains why his interpretation, given with that certainty that comes from a certain kind of intellectual bully, is actually misleading on the issue of Adam Smith and the division of labour, a common enough error among most of the Left.
Smith was a moral philosopher; he observed everything but did nothing. He didn’t bring to his work a preconceived set of prescriptions and apply them to his study of commercial society in the context of 18th-century Britain. He described, taking the long-view of history, as well as his reading about and visiting fairly primitive work places to see how the division of labour increased labour productivity. And not just in the pin factory (‘a very trifling manufacture’; p14). He also, and perhaps of greater significance, he described the ‘accommodation of the most common artificer or day labourer in a civilised and thriving country’ (p 22). Here he described the long supply-chain, including its international dimensions that produced the common labourer’s ‘woollen coat’, the ‘produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen’.
Yes, the national and international division of labour is ‘wonderful’. It operated in Smith’s day without ‘central planning’, ‘central direction’, and without the help of university professors from either Glasgow (1461) or Harvard (1636), or the sovereigns of any kingdom, or legislators and those who influenced them, in the few places where they existed.
Having discussed the division of labour and its commercial consequences in Book I of Wealth Of Nations (it created, among other things, the wealth that enabled Scotland and British colonies in North America to divert some portion of their ‘annual output of the necessities, conveniences, and amusements of life’ to the employment of professors to educate young men – no girls! – to add to the human capital of what were for many decades (in Scotland, for centuries) humans otherwise bereft of learning and sunk in ignorance.
Chomsky notes: ‘But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be.’
Now, some parts of this sentence are fine, some parts woefully wrong, and almost all of it out of historical context. I have no idea how a Harvard professor managed to attack those who ‘read the first paragraph of The Wealth of Nations’ but do not ‘get to the point hundreds of pages later’ (768 actually), and yet manifestly misleads his readers as if he hasn’t read Book V himself with the due care and attention we expect from Harvard undergraduates, let alone its senior faculty.
The relevant section reference is ‘Article ii’, ‘Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth’, pages 758-88, of Book V of Wealth Of Nations, and the relevant page is 782 (from the Glasgow Edition, Oxford University Press):
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier. It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expence of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.” (WN V.i.f: 782)
The education of youth is a long and important part of Wealth Of Nations. In it Adam Smith presents a detailed description of the history of education from classical times to its then state in Britain. The first notable feature was that only boys were formally educated for a few years; girls were left to their parents to ‘home educate’, which for the majority meant no education at all (their parents were likely to illiterate and general ignorant).
Across Britain the picture was patchy. England was largely backward educationally. It had two universities, Oxford and Cambridge, but local schools were rare. In Scotland, there were four universities, Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and 'Aberdeen'. But local provision for education since the 17th century was managed by ‘little schools’ in most parishes, paid for by a mixture of charitable sources, local contributions and donations. Most male children spent a year or more, some ‘bright’ children up to age of 14. Middle class boys tended to stay longer than the children of the poor, most of whom were sent to work from about 8, their parents near destitute.
Smith describes this in Book V. In fact, he offers the ‘little school’ system in Scotland as suitable for England too (a much larger country in population and wealth than Scotland). He envisages all children spending some time learning the ‘read, write and account’ to extend literacy across the majority of children (he left open the question of education for girls, but clearly they could be accommodated in the ‘little school’ system).
Book V is about government expenditure and revenue. How was education to be funded? The government would have to play a serious role in such a project, which meant taxation of a relatively narrow taxation base. At the time taxation was a sensitive subject (it was ever thus) and the people who would have to consent to such an additional expense (‘little schools’ would need to be built, which with 60,000 parishes was no mean line item in a budget) were the legislators, mainly representative of the agricultural aristocracy and few ‘improving’ landlords.
If Chomsky re-reads the paragraph quoted above he will note two themes in his argument. The first, which Chomsky has focused upon, is that of the deleterious effects of the division of labour, which were of longstanding antiquity (the division of labour preceded commerce by many millennia back into pre-history).
Farm labourers were marginally ‘better off’ than the fewer primitive factory labourers, hauliers, seamen, servants and soldiers, and etc. But be clear, the outdoor farm labourers were not all dancing round May Poles and living as happy families on the prairy. Theirs was a hard life, short too, with infirmities and early deaths from disease, incapacity, accidents and starvation.
Into this background Smith raises the ‘man whose whole life is spent performing a few simple operations’ and the consequences in his stupidity and ignorance. He does not raise the spectre of millions living their awful rural lives in similar terms – his appeal is to support from the few rich men who owned the farms.
He also turns his argument neatly as his second theme. If the sources of finance for education (mainly the aristocrats) were not inclined to support the ‘little schools’ from their usual selfish inclinations to prodigality, then it would be useful to appeal to their fears of disturbances to their sheltered lives – the steady decline in martial prowess of the uneducated mass of poorer men (and Smith knew how to write well).
For the indigent labourer whose ‘torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life' could be written as a major threat lurking everywhere. Moreover, ‘Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war.’ If not inclined to rebellion, his services in defence of the island country could be useless.
These concerns were meant to strike a chord with that class of taxpayers who were fearful of weak armies and of easily misled labourers who might become rebellious (such rebel ‘mobs’ had forced the British army out of the colonies).
In short, Smith was 'spinning', as we say today, a case for increased taxation to pay for public institutions regarded as deficient in 18th-century Britain. That he was doing so 768 pages after the ‘pin factory’ was deliberate, Few of his readers would have the faintest idea of what went on in a factory and his prose was powerful because it pushed all the right buttons to rouse the rich readers from their complacency – and not a little hostility – about the plight of the children of labourers.
Chomsky has not considered this context. Hence, he can decry the division of labour and assert with conviction that it ‘will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be’, but not with much credibility. He apparently has no idea of how ignorant were the members of the majority of ordinary labouring families in the 17th and 18th centuries, let alone the millennia before then.
Empirical evidence beats speculation. Was the result of the division of labour, even through the horrors of the industrial revolution of the 19th century, a nation of people who were turned into ‘creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be?’
When Adam Smith wrote Wealth Of Nations (1764-1776) he did not have a vote under the existing franchise – in fact he never had a vote – but by the late 19th century, literacy levels were at unprecedented higher levels, ignorance was not the norm, and trade unions were beginning to exercise their functions, and were led by working men who could do a lot more than ‘read, write, and account’.
By exaggerating his case with colourful prose, few facts, and no history Chomsky undermines those parts of his case that are worthy of our attention.”
“J. Young’s” comment posted this week:
"Perhaps in not having read any previous or subsequent articles on this topic by you, I seem to have missed your point. Here's a portion of what Chomsky said: … “But not many people get to the point hundreds of pages later, where he says that division of labor will destroy human beings and turn people into creatures as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human being to be. And therefore in any civilized society the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.” Smith's logic, similarly, was that the division of labor, if taken to the point of absurdity, would lead humans to become “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” Smith then began to discuss the government's role in a semi-socialized educational system. I'm not too sure I understand that these points are in conflict. Chomsky never said anything about the abolishment of the division of labor; though, you're seemingly arguing that he had. Nor did Chomsky ever insinuate that Smith's logic was that of socialism. Nor did Chomsky say that capitalism should be abolished. He simply outlined the fact that his form of liberalism is similar to that of Smith. What Chomsky is arguing against, as he always does, is the illogical authoritarian-esque conclusions of what is currently referred to as neoliberalism—an ideology which Adam Smith is often propped up as a hero for. Chomsky, as he has done clearly and consistently throughout the years, is simply saying that the underpinnings of neoliberalism are more closely related to notions of empire and domination, than to the ideals expressed by Smith. And that Smith is only being used a a rhetorical device by neoliberalists to foster adherence to an illogical ideal that Smith would likely oppose. You're argument is that Chomsky misinterpreted Smith, though you never say why or how—you only provide a mental-gymnasium of literary deconstruction on Smith's work. I don't think anybody is arguing that the division of labor is anything besides an obvious feature of human-kind.”
The key to J. Young’s (and Chomsky) missing of Smith’s point comes from not reading Wealth Of Nations Book V properly. Chomsky paraphrases what Smith actually wrote as: “the government is going to have to take some measures to prevent division of labor from proceeding to its limits.”
Nowhere does Smith make such an absurd suggestion. His whole point in returning to the division of labour in Book V is make clear to his readers (mainly the well-off who could read and afford his book) that government should “takes some pains to prevent … the state into which the labouring poor… must necessarily fall”. From which Young in an absurd interpretation takes to mean that government should prevent the ‘division of labour’!
On the contrary, Smith’s argument in Book V is about the need to take specific (and, incidentally, expensive) steps to eradicate the deploring lack of education in 18th-century Britain among the labouring poor. It was not a fictitious wish for an end to the division of labour - from which people in improved commercial society had gained so much – Smith details how “industrial and frugal peasants” were so much better off as a direct consequence of the division of labour than “many an African king, the absolute master of the lives and liberties of ten thousand naked savages” (Wealth Of Nations, Book I, Chapter 1, pages 23-24).
Smith’s was a practical policy for thousands of ‘little schools’ in each parish (all 60,000 of them!) to ensure their intellectual development as the best antidote to “gross ignorance and stupidity” among the “inferior ranks of people”. He made his plea for education being supported by government and the taxes of richer citizens, and their charity, by raising fears they would likely to respond to, namely the fear of disorder occasioned by mobs of avoidable illiteracy and ignorance:
“the state, however, derives no inconsiderable advantage from their instruction. The more they are instructed, the less liable they are to the delusions of enthusiasm and superstition, which among ignorant nations, frequently occasion the most dreadful disorders. An instructed and intelligent people are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one. … In free countries, where the safety of government depends very much upon the favourable judgement which the people may form from it conduct, it must surely be of the highest importance that hey should not be disposed to judge rashly or capriciously concerning it.’ (Wealth Of Nations, Book V.i.f.61: page 788).
I commend to J. Young that he read the original text by Smith and not a poorly paraphrased version of it by a highly politically-mind source such as Chomsky, who read “snippets of Adam Smith, the few phrases they teach in school”, and cannot even quote properly the ‘snippet’ he does read.